‘12 Years a Slave’ starts with a ship’s manifest, where a family sees name of an ancestor


Clayton Adams, 43, of Pittsburgh reacts to seeing the document. He is the great great great grandson of Solomon Northup. Descendants of Solomon Northup, the subject of the Oscar-nominated film “12 Years a Slave,” will visit the National Archives Museum and see the manifest. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

The slave manifest for the brig Orleans, bound from Richmond that Tuesday in 1841, included one Plat Hamilton — male, age 26, height 5 feet 7 inches, color “yellow.”

He was one of 41 men, women and children being shipped, along with a cargo of tobacco, to the slave markets of New Orleans.

The manifest declared the shipment legal, and the description of the cargo, upon examination, to be “correct.”

But the document, which went on display last week at the National Archives in downtown Washington, carried more than details of tobacco and slaves.

Thursday afternoon, Vera J. Williams, approached it carefully, her eyes filling with tears. She knew Plat Hamilton was really her great-great-great-grandfather, Solomon Northup, author of the book “12 Years a Slave.”

See the slave manifest

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The slave manifest for the brig Orleans went on display last week at the National Archives. See it.

She had seen copies of the document in the past. She knew what it contained. But this was the real thing.

There, beside the number 33, was the name, “Plat,” and the coarse description of his sex, age, height and skin color.

In the column labeled “Shipper’s Name appeared “James H. Burch,” the brutal Washington slave dealer who savagely beat Northup with a wooden paddle until it broke, for insisting that he was a free man.

Under the heading, “Owner’s or Consignee’s Name,” was “Theo. Freeman” — for Theophilus Freeman — who ran the New Orleans slave market at which Northup was sold for $900.

It was all in the neat penmanship of the customs collector for the port of Richmond — on a form to be filled in, a routine page from the bureaucracy of slavery.

The real Northup was a skilled carpenter and violinist before being captured and sold into slavery. (The Washington Post)

“I get welled up,” Williams, 59, of Bowie, said as she neared the case where the document was displayed. “You’ll have to excuse me. . . . I didn’t think it would upset me like this, but, yeah. Wow. It’s pretty amazing.”

Northup’s wrenching 1853 book is the basis for the movie “12 Years a Slave,” which is up for several Academy Awards on Sunday.

It tells the story of a free black man from New York who was kidnapped in Washington in 1841 and sold into slavery in Louisiana, where he was held in bondage for 12 years.

On Thursday, Williams, a National Archives IT specialist, was invited, along with other members of her family, to see the original manifest for the first time. They were also given special copies of it by David Ferriero, the head of the archives.

Williams was joined by her son, Justin Gilliam, 28, and her granddaughter, Azalea, 4, and several other relatives.

“Each and every piece of information and/or document just further substantiates this actually happened,” Williams had said earlier Thursday.

Williams, who is from Syracuse, grew up hearing the story of her famous ancestor. “But, you know, as a teenager that means nothing to you,” she said.

She said that in the 1970s, her grandmother Victoria Northup Linzy Dunham inscribed a copy of a book that included Northup’s narrative for each one of her nine children.

But it was only when Williams was in college that she picked up her mother’s copy and read it.

“I couldn’t put it down,” she said. Last year, she found a first edition of “12 Years a Slave” in a bookstore in Saratoga, N.Y.

Gilliam said he, too, grew up with the story. “One of the first books I got, not even knowing what it was about, not knowing what slavery was, just to read, was that book,” he said as he stood with his daughter beside the manifest in the archives building.

“Now, her growing up, only being 4, she’s being pretty much raised the same way I was, knowing his story,” he said of his daughter. “So it will be a part of her as she grows up.”

Asked what Northup might think of the moment, Gilliam said: “Just like most of the men in our family, very emotional, [he would] probably just break down and cry, because family is so important to us.”

The manifest was uncovered a few years ago in customs files in a National Archives branch in Fort Worth, archives curator Corinne Porter said. An archives worker was scrutinizing documents there and remembered the name “Plat” from having read Northup’s book.

Northup was freed after managing to send a letter to friends back home in Upstate New York telling of his illegal enslavement.

The manifest listed other slaves who were aboard the Orleans with Northup as it sailed down the James River: Joe Singleton, 17; Henry Williams, 25; and a 9-year-old named Eliza, who stood 4 feet 11 / 2 inches tall.

Vera Williams wondered about them, too.

“How did they come to be where they were?” she said. And what was their fate?

Michael covers monuments, memorials, institutions; lore, ghosts, people of Capital, topics historical, martial, medical.
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